Why Microsoft Needs A Design Czar

A "far-reaching" company restructuring at Microsoft aims to force more collaboration. But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may have forgotten an important element: design.

Early last year, as Microsoft was receiving surprisingly rave reviews for its design of Windows Phone 7.5 Mango, many in the industry wondered how Redmond had pulled off such a beautiful product. The traditionally engineering-centric company had never been known for its design savvy, but its Windows Phone UI—with its minimalist tiles and simple yet beautiful navigation—had arguably leaped ahead of Apple in its design thinking. It was quite the coup, considering how long, and how far, Microsoft had lagged behind Apple on this front.

Would it signal a new, design-focused Microsoft? Unfortunately for the company's shareholders, the forward-thinking designs of Windows Phone were only a limited (though promising) evolution in the company's strategy.

While we saw top-notch design elements of Windows Phone seep into products like Windows 8 and Xbox and Bing, Microsoft's stable of products still felt incredibly disparate, as if they were designed by groups that were not only failing to communicate with each other, but even competing among themselves. It was far from the unified approach to product successfully executed by its chief rival Apple, which produces its iPods, iPhones, iPads, and iMacs using the same DNA across products. The problem has been, as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer laid out in a much-anticipated internal email released today to all employees, that the company has not seen its "product line holistically, [but] as a set of islands." The memo set out a "far-reaching" company restructuring, Ballmer wrote, that will allow Microsoft to rally "behind a single strategy as one company—not a collection of divisional strategies."

The company shakeup Ballmer announced Thursday morning is designed to shift and consolidate responsibilities. By collapsing eight product groups into four, Ballmer hopes the various Microsoft divisions will work more efficiently together, with less redundancy and more collaboration. For example, Julie Larson-Green, who previously headed up the Windows OS group, will now oversee a devices group that will handle hardware like the Xbox video game console and Surface tablets. And Terry Myerson will oversee a unified OS engineering group, focusing his efforts on Windows, Windows Phone, and the software underpinning Xbox.

Whether or not the restructuring will be successful is unclear. What is clear, though, is that Ballmer couldn't let the old way of doing business continue forever, especially considering the slow adoption of Windows Phone and underwhelming launch of Windows 8. Plus, products like Office and Skype and Internet Explorer looked as if they were built by a different company when compared to Windows 8 and Xbox. There needs to be more cross-pollination.

Windows 8 Home Design, top; Xbox One Home Design, bottom

These problems have long been obvious to any consumers of Microsoft's products, but they became especially clear during the development of Windows Phone and Windows 8. Last year, when I asked Windows Phone SVP Joe Belfiore how design elements of Windows Phone might make their way into other Microsoft products, he responded, "We're at a point in our history where the product groups, by and large, operate independently—they make decisions that they think are best for their customers and users. It’s not a case where there’s a top-down mandate: everyone go do this. . . . There are few cases where senior management says, 'Everyone is going to do this.' Those [instances] are the exceptions rather than the rule."

It was an odd strategy, considering the company has roughly 90,000 employees. How could they possibly all operate on the same page? The lack of direct collaboration was all the more apparent when I spoke with a top leader of the Windows group not long ago, which had been mimicking much of the Windows Phone design for the launch of Windows 8. Shockingly, however, the groups didn't collaborate closely for such an important product. "We work in a different way than the Phone team does," the top Windows leader told me. "We don't do the same things as the Phone team. We have a different level of autonomy."

The disparate product divisions have been a huge headache for Microsoft. And without one person overseeing product from all the various divisions, their "islands," as Ballmer referred to them, have moved farther apart. As Julie Larson-Green once told me, "Unlike other companies that maybe have one person at the top, we don’t have a [design] czar at Microsoft."

And perhaps this is the greatest flaw with Ballmer's restructuring. Maybe we'll finally begin to see things change at Microsoft, trending toward more collaboration—though it will likely take a long time to see how these changes will impact the company and its products. But the company still lacks that single visionary at the top making sure that Windows, Windows Phone, Xbox, Office, Bing, Skype, SkyDrive, SharePoint, Azure, and other Microsoft products not only look and feel the same but work the same way as well.

Certainly, there isn't a Steve Jobs at Microsoft, nor is there a Jony Ive. But the fact that Ballmer only mentioned the word "design" once in his memo—referring to Microsoft's marketing and advertising—shows he perhaps still hasn't realized Microsoft's greatest and most underutilized strength.

[Image: Flickr user Eva Peris]

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  • Andrew McKenna

    What do Microsoft stand for these days?
    The look like a company without a vision not just without a visionary.

  • Danielle B.

    "Microsoft's stable of products still felt incredibly disparate, as if they were designed by groups that were not only failing to communicate with each other, but even competing among themselves. It was far from the unified approach to product successfully executed by its chief rival Apple, which produces its iPods, iPhones, iPads, and iMacs using the same DNA across products."

    I could be misinterpreting that quote but it sounds as if you believe the people who play games on the Xbox are the same people who use a Windows Phone or Sharepoint - or could be, if bombarded with enough re-branding that says they should be.  I don't have any hard numbers that show whether or not they currently are, but I can say that designing around a unified brand image seems less important to me than designing to meet the specific needs and desires exhibited by each Microsoft product's culture of users, be they purely aesthetic or functional.  

    So while I agree that Microsoft would do better with a design czar on board - I think we can safely agree that MOST companies would - I don't think cross-product uniformity is necessarily what said czar should be striving for.  Microsoft's disastrous reveal of the Xbox One at E3 is a pretty clear indication to me that gamers care more for what the product can actually do than for its look and feel.

  • Khuyen Forsythe

    Microsoft isn't just focused on consumer products, as your article implies. They have a whole range of expertise-driven applications, for example their .NET framework, that requires a totally different skill set and knowledge base, than, say, their Xbox. 

    While the restructuring is meant to reduce disparate elements, at the same time, it is a complex company with many different markets. I'm not saying they can't make vast improvements in their products (IE is the devil), but they are making strides in the design arena. And as an engineering-centric company, as you say, it might not be their best move strategically to herald a C-level designer just yet.

  • acarr

    Thanks for the note -- I agree that many of their other products, especially in the enterprise, require different skill sets from consumer-facing products. But isn't that part of the issue? The reason we're in this trend of the consumer-ization of the enterprise is because enterprise products were for so long lacking any sense of consumer experience and forward design thinking. 

    Given that Microsoft fell behind in the consumer space in mobile (the iPhone generates more revenue now than all of Microsoft); its Internet services have long been losing money and its struggling to have Bing make a dent in Google's market share (which, mind you, has long eclipsed Microsoft's market cap); and it's spending $1 billion to acquire consumer-inspired enterprise products like Yammer, it seems Microsoft can't wait any longer to think different.

    Of course, I'm not saying hiring a designer on the exec team is some magical silver bullet -- but it's part of the equation, and something that Ballmer still seems to ignore. Sure, it might not have as much impact on .NET. But it could have a positive impact on so many revenue-generating products, and it's also something I've heard wished for countless times by countless designers from Microsoft.

    Also, I very much agree with you that MSFT has made strides in the design arena: